morning, a lanky middle-age man who likes to be called Farmer Dale lifted a
wooden panel revealing a square cutout in his chicken coop. From there, half a
dozen free-range hens strutted out in a line on the chicken run.
'It's like a fashion show of chickens,' 9-year-old Tresa Rentler screeched to 15
of her fellow Brownie Girl Scouts gathered in a half-circle at the bottom of the
runway. Little feet shuffled in the grass to make room for the exiting flock.
High-pitch gasps turned into sighs at the sight of chicks nesting inside.
Rentler, like many of the suburban Pittsburgh tweens in her troop, has never
been to a farm, much less participated in the morning chores of feeding animals
and collecting eggs. Yet the girls and their mothers are part of a growing
number of city dwellers and suburbanites choosing to spend their vacations on
farms instead of taking conventional excursions to the beach or mountains.
The federal government does not track how much farmers make from hospitality
services each year, but farm associations and agritourism officials say farm
vacations are a popular niche business that help preserve America's heritage.
One Northeastern state that has charted the growth of farm vacations and
other farm visits is Vermont, where the agritourism business took in $19.5
million in 2002, up from $10.5 million in 2000, according to Michael Schaefer,
communications director for the Vermont agriculture agency. The figure, however,
represents only 4 percent of the state's total farm income.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering adding an agritourism
question to the agricultural census, which would allow the business to be
tracked nationally, said Aubrey Davis, director of the New England Agricultural
Troop 495 leader Bernadette Gardner and the other troop mothers said they
wanted their daughters to know the joys and rewards of a simpler life before
they're enveloped by the 21st century bustle of music lessons and soccer
In turn, the adults get to shut off their cell phones and reconnect with a
once-common experience for most American families.
'We just thought it'd be a great experience for the girls,' said Gardner, who
found the troop's farm vacation package online.
Preliminary figures from the most recent agriculture census show a continued
decline in the number of America's farms, from 2.2 million in 1997 to 2.1
million in 2002. And nearly 60 percent of farms recorded less than $10,000 in
While people in the West have a tradition of hosting guests _ think dude
ranches _ farmers in the East have only recently started opening their private
homes and cottages to strangers in an effort to supplement low food prices,
'Farmers are desperate. In my mind, they need to do all they can for
business,' he said.
To combat the loss, states like New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania,
West Virginia, Florida and Maryland are working to bring more visitors onto
farms, whether it's getting people to spend a few hours picking fruit or living
the life of a farmer for weeks at a time.
North Carolina has created an office dedicated to agritourism while Indiana
is working to compile county by county lists of agri-destinations on the state's
official Web site. Most are tailoring their promotions around their traditional
crops, with Hawaii planning a railway for visitors to tour a sugarcane
plantation on Kauai.
Many guests come from Europe, where farm stays are as common as bed and
breakfasts, and some can be counted among the post-Sept. 11 travel-weary. Others
are hardened city dwellers seeking an escape.
'People from Washington or New York, they just want to get out of the city
for a while,' said Gary Schubert, who runs Hummerhaven Farmstead in central
Pennsylvania. 'We have a ball. Some just want to get on a tractor or roll a ball
of hay or just shovel manure.'
Schubert, who welcomes about 300 people a year, says the initial loss of cell
phones and satellite televisions can be unnerving for some. But for $75 a night
for a cottage near wooded trails, rivers and rolling valleys, they soon learn to
'They go through withdrawal the first day. They're pacing, not sure what to
do with themselves and then the start taking to an animal or get into a paddle
boat and the next day they're not as jittery,' Schubert said.
German newspaper correspondent Wolfgang Koydl said he took his wife, their
9-year-old daughter and their border collie mix to Hummerhaven over the Easter
holiday because it was within driving distance of Washington, D.C., they had
fond memories of staying on farms in Austria, and the Schuberts were among the
few operators who accepted pets.
'That sort of cinched it for us,' said Koydl, who writes for Suddeutsch
Farmer Dale, aka Dale Tudor, began operating Weatherbury Farm Vacations, a
100-acre parcel of land 25 miles west of Pittsburgh near the Ohio border, in the
early '90s after he lost his job during a downsizing at drug-maker Bayer Corp.
With the help of his wife, Marcy, and son, Nigel, the family has renovated the
farmhouse and recently added a barn.
The farm offers the intimacy of a bed and breakfast in a rural setting and a
respite from city congestion, strip malls and stress.
'When I was a kid, my grandparents had a farm. They don't have farms anymore.
They're more likely to be living in a condominium on a beach,' said Marcy Tudor,
president of the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association, which has two dozen
Proponents now include the mothers of the Brownie troop, who snapped pictures
of their daughters feeding corn and hay to heifers, lambs and goats. Darlene
Gray, 41, who brought her daughter Casey, 8, said with dance, softball and
karate piling on top of school, it's important to 'just get away.'
After chores, the group hiked up a grassy hill to share a picnic lunch."